Dehydrating the Narrative

I think of my seven/fourteen tweet pieces and those of my colleagues in Chimera Group such as George Szirtes or James Knight, or the tweet series of Jeff Noon, or his group Echovirus12, not so much as prose poems as dehydrated narratives.

Yes, the regularity of more-or-less 140 characters, plus the limitations of X numbers of pieces, acts as a poetic constraint. But the temptation to play with story is as great. We are so familiar with narrative and its genre structures that a hint of the appropriate texture is enough for the boiling liquid of the reader’s imagination to be added. This leaves space to reconfigure and play without leaving the compressed zone of the poem, where that heightened attention to language can operate.

This is significantly other than the sort of nouvelle cuisine (remember that?) of some forms of short short fiction, or the high art reclamations of, say, SciFi by literary giants, in that the created object, if reconstituted in its entirety, would still be recognisably ersatz. In fact, it is the wobble, the cheese, the pulpiness or B-movie-ness, in short, the Secondariness, that I at least am aiming for at all. (The others may wish to demur at this point.)

The idea that the facsimile is the proper goal is already obvious in both parody and pastiche, but behind both these lies the concept of the imitation as both the apprentice’s task and, in Platonism, all that any artist can achieve: the copy of the copy of the ideal.

Of course, implicit in such thinking is the role of the ideal within any artistic field, the ‘masterpiece’ which must be produced by the ‘genius’. That which in any guild or trade was simply an act of sufficient mastery, the masterpiece, displaying – alongside the payment of enough cash to the correct parties – competence to practise, is fetishised beyond access by all but the primary ones, those whose faces beam at us with cyclical recurrence from the front pages of literary supplements and magazines.

Of course, when these very faces work with genre elements, it is somehow to redeem them rather than to colonise, to perfect rather than to recycle or exploit. (And the familiar recurrence of their appearance guarantees cash or at least the status which sells advertising to the parent papers of those supplements, or attracts grants to those magazines.)

Similarly, the principle of the flawlessness of the text they produce is adhered to by all except the deconstructionist, whose attention is naturally drawn to the self-perpetuating structure which underpins its production. But that attention is itself governed by the same law of the facsimile – if the masterpiece can no longer be relied on to be of Biblical authority, then my hermeneutics must transfer to the critical processes which want to regard it in such a light, and so on, in strict recession.

The worthiness of this is, frankly, for the philosophers. A writer has, while acknowledging and exposing these processes, other means of doing so and indeed other, in the sense of additional, goals. What interests me about the dehydrated narrative is its approach to suggestion, to the larger spaces that lie behind all fictions, and, indeed, between rational progressions of thought. This, which we might think of as a suggestibility in both reader and writer, is a sort of daydream space, an almost communal subjectivity, in which certain shared stimuli may permit drift.

It is also a DIY reaction to the sort of collaborative effort you would have to deploy to enact some of these ideas – the graphic skills or dramaturgic abilities or musical competence or recording or directing or publishing expertise being beyond some of us. There is a laziness, and a solipsism inherent in this, but also a freedom to be impractical, sometimes wildly so: to transform actual settings or depart from the conventions governing fictional ones – particularly the narrative rules which draw some of us to such invention in the first place.

The formulae of ‘Story’ exist for a reason, but it is possible, by withdrawing from reasonableness, to turn to its epiphenomena, and, like the incredible shrinking man, to enter a sub-narrative realm.
Lost Ashton Smith
One example of the sort of speculative drift I’m discussing occurs for me in relation to the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, one of the trio of Weird Stories writers producing a hybrid horror/SciFi/proto-fantasy fiction in the US in the 1930s. Like Philip K. Dick, the other two, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, have become thoroughly exploited mining territories for film makers, heavy metal nerds, and hipsters, but Ashton Smith began as a poet, and ended as a sculptor, and the focus of his fiction is much more on the textures of language and setting, than on what happens in them.

With mechanical recurrence, hapless, venal or intrepid explorers (he doesn’t much mind which) stumble upon a remorseless and grotesquely ‘other’ entity in a lovingly described alien realm, which eats them. It is the realm and, to a lesser extent, the eating, which engages him – and the issue it raises of what arcane vocabulary and elaborate syntax this will require of him.

There are several such places – luxuriantly (and carnivorously) foliaged other worlds, and ancient, desiccated, ruined places at the end of time, where dead (but peckish) creatures may be summoned from slumber by hapless, venal or intrepid necromancers.

The one which particularly intrigued me was the least developed of the set, a Mars on the point of ecological collapse, on which conventional SciFi ‘space traders’ encountered an ancient race of barrel-chested, cadaverous Martians, the Aihai, who perhaps had three mighty nostrils, and occasionally a third vestigial forelimb, and who lived in an ancient metropolis called Ignarrh – that we practically never saw.

The plucky but luckless Earthmen, driven of course by greed or curiosity, were, in the couple of stories Ashton Smith completed, perpetually heading out of or beneath the city in search of their spectacular and grisly dooms. The Aihai themselves were more hinted at than seen, as we would encounter examples, living, dead, and sometimes somewhere in between, of more ancient races still, from which the present, gaunt, croaky Martians had descended if not devolved.

It was the unwritten city, then, and its barely sketched-out inhabitants, which lingered longer in my adolescent mind than any of the more ‘complete’ worlds he wrote of, just as it is the slightly incoherent stage of the Cthulhu mythos, when Lovecraft is first stumbling on its cyclopean outlines, that people fixate on, rather than the more elaborated cosmology of his editor, August Derleth (though he certainly had the name for the job).

Lin Carter did the same for Howard, and Tolkien, in the form of The Silmarillion, did it for or rather to himself – cancelling out the speculative in favour of the grammar. But Ashton Smith has, so far, been spared. In a way, like a hybrid between Raymond Roussel and Don Van Vliet, he was just too damn weird.

This space for the reader as interpreter, illustrator, or even translator, of the fragmentary is in a way supported by the dehydrated space of twitter-generated texts. At present, at least in the manifestations I’m discussing, it plays with the chimeric – that which sits between forms and tones, working with absurdity and the unheimlich rather than the highly serious (it hardly has room to aspire to the sententious).

Neither prose poem nor short short short fiction, and yet partaking of both, it is at once a sort of astronaut food, the strange pills and packets we once thought would feed the future, and an older kind of border space, thin enough to let a kind of collaboration between writers as readers and readers as writers begin. Let’s begin.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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One Response to Dehydrating the Narrative

  1. E.E. Nobbs says:

    I am currently taking an online course on Fragments at the Poetry School, London. Have taken it on as an adventure 🙂

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